Language in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Published: 2021-10-07 12:55:11
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The Segmentation of Language in Heart of Darkness Language in the broadest sense is communication between species, with varying degrees of complexity. The purpose of all human languages is to communicate – to transfer a message from one person to another. The message content consists of facts and meaning; being the logical and emotional elements, respectively. Messages may consist solely of facts — “It is five o’clock. ” — or purely meaning, such as “I love you. ” However, most messages require both elements, yet developed countries’ elevation of fact over meaning has hamstringed language’s efficacy.
Throughout Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad focuses on this divorce of fact and meaning, providing an interwoven critique of the segmentation of language using frame narrative, analysis of written word, and juxtaposition of modern language with the raw language from untouched Africa. Marlow begins and ends his tale in a lotus position, evoking the concept of mind over matter. But how accurately does this describe Marlow? At many points Marlow loses his composure due to his inability to convey meaning.
In the beginning, the “outside” narrator equates a story’s meaning with a “haze”, or fog (1893). In his analogy, the meaning is “brought out” with a “glow” of light. But shine too much light, and the fog envelopes the path (i. e. facts of the story). This is what happens when Marlow concentrates solely on the point he wishes to convey; the meaning is lost in a sea of emotions with no facts to anchor them, producing anger and frustration that destroy his Buddha emulation. Fernandez 2 Conrad’s use of a frame narrative serves multiple functions.
The same phrases conveyed through an ethereal narrator would lack the emotional content. The reader empathizes with a human narrator who has emotions, while an ethereal narrator conventionally can convey options but not utter doubt. The frame narrative underscores the irony that African natives have little difficulty orally telling a story. Civilization’s mass production of the written word has atrophied its citizen’s ability to tell a simple story. Interestingly, the fact that Marlow lived this tale actually frustrates rather than buttresses his ability.
Bruffee points out Marlow’s “disillusionment with words” grows as he gets closer to Kurtz, all the while “becom[ing] less and less enamored of words as Fernandez 3 the verbose Kurtz talks” (Bruffee 327). As a seaman, Marlow may feel inadequate to perform a job that is outside his profession. The industry of storytelling discourages laymen from attempting this refined skill. Heart of Darkness does have an “outside” narrator (not Marlow) who is a crewman aboard the Nellie. While nothing is known about this narrator crewman, the other three Nellie passengers represent civilization’s upper-middle class.
The Accountant and the Lawyer are fitting recipients of a tale of unethical corporate greed, while the Director, looking “so nautical” (1891) embodies industrialization’s excessive segmentation, for his position keeps him ashore. Unlike Heart of Darkness, The Return – an earlier work of Conrad’s – uses a conventional, omniscient narrator that clearly indicates the internal tensions the protagonist feels. Conrad was criticized for this excessive narratorial spoon-feeding, and the novel lacked public appeal. But like Marlow, The Return’s protagonist struggles with a dichotomy of language.
Upon learning his wife has left him, he exclaims, “She’s gone!… It was terrible – not the fact, but the words; the words charged with the shadowy might of a meaning” (Kramer 8) (emphasis added). Skilleas refers to Conrad’s theme of restraint as the “saving grace of… work” that anchors one to reality (Skilleas 53). Specifically, it is industrialized work, or work that does not directly provide food, clothing, or shelter, that vaccinates Marlow from insanity. “[I]ndeed,” says Marlow, “to be busy with material affairs is the best preservative agent against reflection, fears, [and] doubts” (McIntyre 193).
Industrialized work depends upon facts; little emotional meaning is needed to monitor a boiler. Kurtz, alone and engaged in less monotonous work, becomes susceptible. While benign, the native’s culture mixed with paternalistic ideals produces megalomania within Kurtz. Fernandez 4 The restraint of industrialized work goes both ways. Both the chief accountant’s laundress and Marlow’s fireman (boiler operator) were “improved specimen” after learning a skill (1916). While this implies that civilization protects humanity from savage insanity, Marlow goes out of his way to normalize the natives and their culture. Prehistoric man[‘s]” rituals may be “ugly” (1916), but he likens them to “the sound of bells in a Christian country” (1904). Within Heart of Darkness are two written works: Towson’s An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship and Kurtz’ pamphlet to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Both are instructional in nature. As Towson’s book teaches a technical skill, it need solely focus on facts to accurately convey its message. Kurtz’s pamphlet is an analysis of how to better the natives. This pamphlet provides the most severe example of language segmentation.
An accurate assessment must contain both facts and meaning, yet al the meaning has been stripped from the message. Only facts remain, obscuring and encoding the recommendation to be more palatable, prefiguring Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution. ” Marlow comments that “what saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency” (1894). But efficiency is mocked by the pamphlet’s content – seventeen pages are summarized by the postscript’s four words that convey the pamphlet’s true meaning: “Exterminate all the brutes! ” (1927).
Marlow amusingly juxtaposes the European’s English with the native crew mates’ language when their steamboat is attacked by Kurtz’s natives. The scene begins with the war-cry. (While Marlow later describes the cry as “protective” (1921), war-cry remains a valid label. ) Besides ethically announces the natives’ presence (something eschewed in modern warfare as inanely chivalrous) its piercing tone conveys – in a few syllables – the fact that the Europeans are trespassing and are to turn back. The underlying meaning – “I am dangerous” – is also
Fernandez 5 conveyed. In this capacity the war-cry mimics nature, as a cobra’s hissing and rattling convey the most lucid message “Back away or else! ” War-cries exist in other cultures. Many Native American tribes used war-cries, and all hand-to-hand combats (i. e. pre-WWI) employed them to different extents. High schools and colleges have extended the practice to the observers, where fans shout chants to spur on their team. The war-cry appears universal. The war-cry has the intended effect on the Europeans, instilling fear and confusion.
Their native crew mates, however, display “an alert, naturally interested expression” (1918). The superior firepower of the Europeans should have alleviated much of their concern; it initially did not, perhaps because none of the Europeans were soldiers. Division of labor, or maybe diplomacy, stripped them of this warrior faculty that is just another facet of the natives’ lives. After the initial shock of the war cry, the Europeans are “greatly discomposed”. In contrast the natives “exchange short, grunting phrases, which seemed to settle the matter to their satisfaction” (1919).
The breadth of meaningful content exchanged in a couple of grunts is astounding. Industrialization champions the virtue of efficiency, yet the inevitable segmentation under the banner of specialization tends to impede efficiency. For example, current military personnel must be taught code and gestures – a new language – to communicate effectively during battle. While a nation may speak one dominate language, industry jargon and socioeconomic dialects serve to limit the transmission of meaning.
Communication is now a college major, creating uncertainty as to who is actually qualified to conduct such a task. Shortly afterward, the manager asks Marlow if he thinks the natives will attack. Marlow responds with a long lecture, stupefying his fellow Europeans. This soliloquy is probably ten to twenty times longer than his fellow natives’ assessment. Many valid reasons, such as Fernandez 6 unfamiliarity with Africa and a sense of diplomacy, exist for Marlow’s loquaciousness. But the contrast does suggest a superfluousness in modern language that impedes its primary goal.
Marlow employs body language once, when he turns his shoulder towards the manager after he comments, “You are the captain” (1921). The natives, however, use body language, including hand gestures, more often. This utilization of the entire body gives the user more tools to effectively communicate. Kurtz’s Russian disciple (the “harlequin”) throws up his arms while extolling the virtues of his guru (1931). Before this particular gesture, the Russian had many times undulated his arms while speaking. But this occurrence drew the stare of one of the natives onboard the steamboat.
The Russian’s action foreshadows the latter incident where the native woman raises her arms as a final plea for Kurtz to stay or perhaps an abject concession of loss (1940). Heart of Darkness is a journey towards a conversation, as Marlow is “looking forward to – a talk with Kurtz” (1924). Personally, Marlow’s frustrations in storytelling may be semiautobiographic, as Conrad’s mastery of written English (his third language) was spoken with a heavy French accent and many mispronunciations, proving severe enough to turn down lecturing positions (Pousada 345).
Conrad also noted that writing in English “required a formidable effort on [his] part” (Pousada 346). Despite this, Heart of Darkness displays Conrad’s adept understanding of the nuances of language. Conrad withholds just enough information to force the reader to think while not inducing frustration. Marlow will never know what exactly “the horror” is; therefore, neither will the reader. Yet Marlow’s struggle with his own narration conveys the importance of incorporating both fact and meaning in order to accurately and fully communicate.

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